Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarokov was born in St. Petersburg on November 25, 1717. Of noble descent, Sumarokov was the son of a St. Petersburg military man who was reared in the tradition of the Petrine epoch, with an acute consciousness of the family’s high social standing and a strong desire to maintain it. Being a sufficiently wealthy nobleman of the old order, Sumarokov’s father owned six estates with approximately 1,670 serfs; he eventually transferred from active military duty to St. Petersburg, where he held a prominent place in civilian life.
At the age of fourteen, young Sumarokov, along with other children of high-ranking nobility, entered the then recently opened school for the Gentlemen’s Cadet Corps of the Land Forces in St. Petersburg. At this academy, he received a diverse education that included the French classics. Of great significance for Sumarokov’s future literary career as a dramatist was his participation in and enthusiastic support of the amateur theatrical interludes, performed by pupils of the Cadet Corps for audiences from the royal court. For these occasions, Sumarokov, along with other talented poets and budding actors, composed poetry and dramatic pieces, imitating the models of contemporary French poetry to which they had been introduced. As novices, they all (including Sumarokov) followed the working rules of the newly emerging Russian classicism, first developed by Vasily Kirillovich Trediakovsky, who was at that time a leading writer and theoretician, enjoying great popularity, and with whom Sumarokov was later to quarrel.
Although Sumarokov wrote verses and tragedies while at the Cadet School, he did not immediately embark on a full-fledged career as a writer and dramatist on completion of his education. At that time, there was in Russia’s capital no theater specifically for Russian playwrights and Russian actors; while theatrical performances were the chief source of entertainment for the court during the reign of Anna Ivanovna (1730-1740), these performances usually consisted of Italian, French, and German plays, and ballets and operas performed by dramatic companies from abroad in a room equipped for the theater in the newly built Winter Palace. Given such limitations, it is not surprising that Sumarokov first chose to...
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